“What country, friends, is this?” says Viola in “Twelfth Night” as she escapes the shipwreck and drags herself onto an unknown shore. The metaphor for Britain in 2021 is apposite in a way unimaginable a few short years ago.
Yesterday the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Priti Patel, joined the National Crime Agency in an operation to apprehend alleged people smugglers in East London. She did so in a specially made uniform with “Home Secretary” visible on a label on the jacket.
To say that Ms Patel’s self-promoting stunt is unprecedented goes without saying as does, unfortunately, that it’s pretty much par for the course in Boris Johnson’s Government which, when it is not lying through its teeth, trivialises everything it touches.
Johnson is a showman – a sort of Archie Rice on the stage of a dying Music Hall telling the same old jokes. There is no depth to Archie just pathos. As the “The Entertainer” progresses you see that Archie gradually realises that he is a fraud – something that the audience has realised much earlier. I’m not sure that Johnson has noticed yet.
So “What country friends is this?” misgoverned by low grade actors on a stage once bestrode by giants or, if not that, by those who gave a credible, respectable performance. Can you imagine a previous Home Secretary so delighting in her decisions that she insinuates herself in the action ? Ms Patel has in the past expressed support for the Death Penalty – as here in a performance of gruesome gormlessness. No doubt if she secured the return of hanging she’d be up there on the scaffold arranging the noose.
It’s the old substance versus show debate. During the Second World War Churchill got the balance right. Yes he couldn’t resist landing on a Normandy beach not long after D Day. But that bit of showing off was reasonable, even inspired, in the context of his courageous leadership in times of extraordinary stress.
Leadership is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It may be fuelled by “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” as in Macbeth. Here the Peter Principle is relevant. Ambition is not in itself a bad thing of course only when it “o’erleaps itself”. The Peter Principle holds that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Macbeth could not reach his goals by fair means, so he resorted to foul ones. Boris Johnson could never have become Prime Minister without dissembling and lying.
The Cabinet of Fools, presided over by our failing Music Hall performer, is a vivid illustration of the Peter Principle pretty much without exception. Priti Patel the most obvious and disturbing example. Her dressing up looks like “Spitting Image” – it is certainly comic until you realise that this is not for laughs, it’s for real.
To adapt L.P. Hartley we can say that the “present is a foreign country – they do things differently here.” What country it is I’ve frankly absolutely no idea. I don’t recall being shipwrecked here and I struggle even to recognise it at times.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,